Ulver: 'Childhood's End' – CD Review


Today's featured album comes from a band in a constant state of mutation: when Ulver first emerged in the mid-'90s, they were classed among the second wave of Norwegian black metal, though their music was more inspired by Norse mythology and folklore than by the occult themes of their contemporaries like Emperor, Burzum or Darkthrone. But ever since their chilling debut album Bergtatt ("Taken by the Mountains"), the band began to incorporate an amazing range of new sonic elements – including ritual chanting, classical instruments, industrial noise, dark ambient sound design, electro beats and synthesizers – that would send them off into a spooky musical universe of their very own. Today their lyrical themes still lie mostly within the world of dark fantasy, but for their new album Childhood's End, they've chosen songs of a bygone era for inspiration: these sixteen tracks (which the band prefer to call "chapters") are all covers of '60s psychedelic rock tunes, resulting in an even wilder trip than their original writers ever imagined. Read on for a review, and check out their chilling new video "Magic Hollow"...

If you're even a passing fan of psychedelic rock, many of the songs covered on Childhood's End will come from fairly familiar sources – including chart-topping acts like Jefferson Airplane, The Pretty Things or The Byrds. But Ulver have dug much deeper into their memories (and record libraries) to find new source material, spending much of the past three years on this project, even during the writing and production of their well-received 2011 album War of the Roses. Over that timespan, they not only unearthed lesser known cuts from those more popular bands – including other legendary acts like Electric Prunes and The 13th Floor Elevators – but also revived works from more obscure groups like Chocolate Watchband, Gandalf, Bonniwell's Music Machine and United States of America. For all but the most dedicated fans of '60s psych-outs, most of these songs – and the bands who originated them – will be completely alien territory. But in Ulver's skilled hands, the tunes take on lives of their own, and fit very well into the band's endless spectrum of playing styles.

"This is the stuff that we sit at home and get stoked about," said frontman Kristoffer Rygg. "I grew up with parents who were still listening to music from that time, so it informed my childhood, but it has became an ever-increasing geeky sort of fetish since then." He went on to reveal his eagerness to expose modern fans to the genre in an entirely new way. "My feeling is that most people's knowledge [of psychedelic rock] sort of limits itself to The Doors... but there was so much else going on in the underground; records that got lost and didn't get as much recognition as they deserved, in my opinion. We want to be ambassadors for the things that we love, and we sort of hope that we can open some gates with this record."

The album opens on an up note with an epic take on The Pretty Things' "Bracelets Of Fingers," but the mood overall is still pensive and moody, thanks to the eerie soundscapes and Rygg's rich but somber vocal delivery – which transforms even lighter numbers like The Byrds' "Everybody's Been Burned" into strange, dark poetry. Though much of the instrumentation and delivery is loyal to the '60s sound, like in the neo-medieval minstrel style of "The Trap" by Bonniwell Music Machine and the sweet Hammond organ noodling of Gandalf's "Can You Travel in the Dark Alone?" there are some notable exceptions, including a post-punk gothic interpretation of Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" which would not feel out of place on a horror-punk album, and a gritty, evil electro-rock spin on The Troggs' "66-5-4-3-2-1." One of the album's most emotionally powerful tracks – and a wise choice for their first single – is a beautifully nightmarish cover of the Beau Brummels' "Magic Hollow," and the album wraps on a dark note, thanks to the dark and somber echoes of "Where Is Yesterday" by USA.

While Ulver clearly intends Childhood's End to be a nostalgic introduction to their early musical influences, you don't have to know a damn thing about psychedelic rock to appreciate the mind-altering effects of this record. While the '60s versions were already intended to go against the grain of the popular music of the era, I think even the songs' original creators would find their minds re-blown after hearing their music elegantly reshaped to fit Ulver's otherworldly vision. (Hell, I'm still tripping over the idea that this band used to play straight-up Norwegian black metal... just can't wrap my brain around that one.)

Check out an elegantly spooky example in this video for "Magic Hollow"...